The ‘Oscar Season’ has begun in earnest over the past few weeks, and the contenders for Best Actor are quickly becoming clear. As noted in this blog recently, the performances of Michael Keaton in ‘Birdman’ and Matthew McConaughey in ‘Interstellar’ set a high bar for what comes next. But with his performance as physicist Stephen Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything’, Eddie Redmayne has now set the bar at record height. I have no doubt that Benedict Cumberbatch may offer excellent competition in ‘The Imitation Game’, but he’ll have to bring his A-game.
‘The Theory of Everything’ recounts the life of Hawking from his early days at Cambridge, through his diagnosis of ALS and to the current day. The film focuses primarily on the relationship between Hawking and his wife, Jane, from their meeting as students at Cambridge, through their courtship, marriage and difficult life together. The film is an excellent evocation of the period, and of the joys and hardships of dealing with a relationship in which one partner is very dependent on the other, while attracting all of the public sympathy and attention. The script is not particularly provocative, but it does do a very good job of comparing and contrasting the points-of view of the lead characters.
Felicity Jones plays Jane in a performance that should garner a Best Actor nomination of her own. She is the real core of this film. While Redmayne is eerily perfect in capturing Hawking -- both the wasting of his body and the resolution of his spirit, it is Jones who provides the steel center of this relationship. In a prescient moment in the film, in which she is confronted by Hawking’s father encouraging her to move on from his deteriorating son, Jane says ‘I may not appear to be a very strong person, but I assure you that is not the case’. Not in the slightest! And yet the difficulty of caring for Hawking, their children and the mounting significance of her husband’s genius begins to wear on Jane. This all comes to a head with Jane seeking solace in the form of a local musician who comes to help the family, but complicates the relationship. In a parallel turn of events, Hawking takes an assistant who adds to the complications. It is well known that the couple divorced; but what is less known and sensitively presented in the film is that the two remained very close and actively co-parented their children throughout their lives.
While Jones as Jane is the core of the film, it is hard to take ones’ eyes off of Redmayne whenever he is on screen. His ability to capture Hawking’s debilitating illness as well as his impish humor and monumental intelligence is extraordinary. Even when he loses his ability to speak and is forced to communicate through a complex voice simulator, he remains a compelling character. This is an acting tour-de-force that will be difficult to overcome at Oscar time.
Unlike ‘Interstellar’, which asked the viewer to engage with the science, ‘The Theory of Everything’ allows the science to be relevant, but in the background; and understandable to anyone who has taken high school physics or read even the first chapter of one of Hawking’s books. Rather than focus on science, this film focuses on people; and particularly the extraordinary effort required to live as normal a life as possible under the death sentence if a debilitating. The situation is difficult enough in a family whose life is ‘normal’ – whatever that means for a family faced with these circumstances. But when one of the partners is constantly in the public eye, and has a significant professional life, it becomes even more difficult. ‘The Theory of Everything’ does an outstanding job of presenting the pros and the cons of such a relationship – and the stresses that can ultimately tear the relationship apart.
In summary, it is unlikely that ‘The Theory of Everything’ will be a Best Picture nominee: it is too simple a story and the filmmaking is relatively mundane. But the performances of Redmayne and Jones are definitely worth the trip to the cinema. You are unlikely to see anything better this season.